True Story: Morty

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

MortyI was a quiet, insecure kid, and it was painful for me to socialize. My younger brother and I were loved by our parents, but there was violent arguing between them for as long as I can remember. While I was growing up in Elmhurst, Queens, N.Y., I ate a lot of candy, cake and ice cream, but I didn’t drink or use drugs except one time at seventeen when I felt ashamed that I had nowhere to go on New Year’s Eve. I lied to my parents and said I was going to a party, but bought a pint of wine,  drank it on the street and came home sick.

Even though I was quiet, I was a class joker, and was left back in the first grade, which was a good thing because that’s how I met my only real friend then, who is still a friend now after seventy-one years. Being friends then consisted of laughing a lot and pulling a couple of breaking-and-enterings, at a hobby shop and a diner.

After high school I had no goals so I signed-up for the 82nd Airborne, sure that people at home would be impressed. I was court-martialed four times, the last for disobedience and disrespect to an officer and a non-commissioned officer and misappropriation of an army vehicle (stealing), and received five years confinement at hard labor, of which I served eighteen months, and received a dishonorable discharge.

After my discharge I moved into my own place in Manhattan and took up the alto saxophone. When I was working a lunch counter in Greenwich Village, a customer who noticed I played Horace Silver on the jukebox struck up a conversation with me. He was easy to talk to, and eventually introduced me to three of his friends, all of whom were my first adult friends at age twenty-four. We smoked marijuana and listened to jazz on the radio and had involved conversations. Then some guy came around with methamphetamine and I let him shoot me up with it.

I continued using speed, mostly by dropping Benzedrine tablets and skin-popping. But I developed abscesses and had them cut at a hospital. While lying in bed in pain, ringing for the nurse, no one came and I threw a water can at the wall. My mother was called and she told them I‘d been staying up all night painting and was short-tempered. The doctors sent me to Creedmoor State psychiatric hospital. I was given tranquilizers and then fifteen electroshock treatments.

When released I started using speed again. One day my brother came with his friends to shoot up heroin and asked if I wanted some. I declined, but my brother said “it’s better than that crap you’re using,” so I did some, and before long I went to Spanish Harlem with one of my brother’s friends to cop, then by myself.

I overdosed four times in six years, and the same guy saved my life twice, the first being when he was waiting for me to return his works that I borrowed to shoot up in the bathroom of a restaurant: when I took longer than he figured I would, he yanked me from under a toilet door with a spike in my arm. If that door had been the length of the average toilet door, I wouldn’t be telling you this now.

I made six attempts in six years at kicking heroin. At Manhattan General my final time, it wasn’t with the hope of quitting forever as in previous times—it was to be drug free for an upcoming court case. That was November 3rd, 1966. Waiting to be admitted to the “21-day cure” program, I shot up my last bag in the toilet there. Upstairs someone mentioned that a “real drug program” was due to start there on another floor, and I waited for it.

The city’s Addiction Services Agency had been started by Mayor Lindsay, and a staff member, Victor—a New York guy who graduated from a program in Puerto Rico—was my inspiration.  He brought me into the city’s treatment program, which took the name Phoenix House, following the title of a newsletter another resident and I started called The Phoenix. On May 2nd, 1967 the first residents moved into a tenement building on West 85th Street in Manhattan, and on May 3rd, I went with others to open a facility on Hart Island off the Bronx, where Victor was director. For me the hardest thing was being around so many people. At one point I was told I was a threat to the community because of my hostility.

In the Re-Entry part of the program I met my first girlfriend when I was thirty-three, and after graduating, started taking saxophone lessons again. When my girlfriend returned to Denver, I began writing poetry in earnest, and took a workshop through the 92nd Street Y. But having no real friends and no strong attachment to New York, I bought a motorcycle and headed for the First National Poetry Festival in Michigan, a six-day affair. When it ended someone asked me where I was going and I told her I didn’t know—that I was just looking for a nice place to live. She said Iowa City was, and I followed her there, where she introduced me to her poet and small independent publisher friends.

They were a welcoming bunch, and I became part of their community, including establishing my own small nonprofit literary outfit, The Spirit That Moves Us Press in1975. I ran it until 2000. I did everything from editing, typesetting, and layout to marketing and distribution after the finished products came back from the printer. My press’s biggest claim to fame was having published in 1983 a book of poems, The Casting Of Bells, by a Czech poet, Jaroslav Seifert, who won the Nobel Prize in literature the following year.

I never struggled with my recovery although it was difficult to quit cigarettes, and I sometimes still have difficulty dealing with my emotions. I married in Iowa in 1980 and divorced two years later. In 1989 my mother had Alzheimer’s disease and I moved back to New York. I continued my writing and publishing and taught poetry workshops at various Phoenix House programs around the city and elsewhere. In 2008 I received the first Phoenix House Alumni of the Year Award.

The best and most lasting part of my recovery has been Marcela, my love of twenty-one years, and learning to accept my limitations.

If you or a loved one needs help for a substance abuse issue, Phoenix House is here for you. Email us or call today at 1 888 671 9392.

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2 Comments

  • Charlotte

    What an inspirational story. I have so much respect for you coming from a family with an alcoholic father and parents that always argued I can relate to what that is like.

    Thank God for people like you that made that hard road to recovery that can help young people today that have so many struggles with drugs and family that isn’t always there. It is hard for them.
    Bravo for putting your story out there to help them.


  • Morty

    Thank you, Charlotte, and my best wishes for you.



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